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Writing with Color

Discussion in 'Writing Resources' started by A. E. Lowan, Aug 13, 2014.

  1. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    We've been on tumblr for a few weeks, which is super fun and very useful if approached with a discerning mind. But, anyway, there is a new blog called Writing with Color that is dedicated to providing writing resources "centered on cultural and ethnic diversity." So far they have provided a fountain of brilliantly useful posts and links to articles. I highly recommend this blog!

    Writing with Color
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    Writing non-European characters shouldn't be harder than writing Europeans. You just need to write them as people.

    I understand the desire for representing people from certain marginalized groups. In fact I have felt it myself many times before. However, it has been my experience that fixating too much on a character's "minority" characteristics can harm characterization as much as help it. When you treat your character as representative of a group rather than an individual, you worry too much over whether they represent the group positively instead of actually fleshing them out.

    The point about researching non-European cultures is valid if you want to make your cultures resemble real-world ones. However, this is something that should be done with any kind of culture that's supposed to have a real-world resemblance, European or not.
    Zāl Dastān likes this.
  3. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I grew up in a Filipino neighborhood, went to high school in the south in a town that was about 30-40% black, I have roomed with immigrants from the Ukraine, gone to college classes in NYC filled with people from the Middle East, studied international marketing and management.... I've been to Denmark, Germany, France, South Korea and the Czech Republic. And man, let me tell you, people are different.

    Good, bad, neutral - it's not even about that. People respond to things differently. They have different values and priorities. Different cultural norms. They talk about family, friends, community, work, leisure in different ways.

    Whenever I hear someone say "Just treat them as people," I'm reminded of what a black guy told me a long time ago. "White people don't think they have culture. White people just think they're right."

    If you don't take the time to understand people, all you're going to do is impose your own values onto everyone else. And that's ridiculous.
  4. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    I'm not sure if this is agreeing with you or not, but I think a lot of "people are different" comes from looking at people like they're TV Tropes entries. For instance, when a story set in some other time and place involves a thirty-year-old marrying a teenager, TV Tropes calls it "Values Dissonance" and makes a big deal over it, because it looks at them as a thirty-year-old and a teenager. If you look at them as character X and character Y, and one of those happens to be a teenager, it's a hell of a lot easier to write them. Same deal when writing a character who's casually racist, or a character who comes from a society that lacks the resources to feed folks who can't work, or for that matter, a character who doesn't believe in paying people before he's seen their work and made sure they did a good job (something I have actually seen TV Tropes call "Values Dissonance.")

    (Incidentally, I just read a story that involves funerary cannibalism. The main character, who's apparently some kind of reader stand-in, makes a massive, massive deal over how weirded out she is by this, and after a while, I just wanted her to shut the hell up. Your culture practices respect for its dead. Their culture practices respect for its dead. Why be so hung up over what form it takes?)
  5. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    I have to agree with Devor here, mainly because I'm a medieval historian. I spend a good deal of time getting my students to understand the subtle ways in which medieval people differ from modern people. If the students get as far as grad school, I then spend even more time getting them to understand the subtle ways in which they do not differ. After that, it's learning how a 15thc Venetian differed from a 15thc Dane, and so on.

    Maybe I need to start a blog on temporal diversity. ;-)

    There are thousands of differences and thousands of similarities. One of the jobs of an author is to notice them all, then write only about the ones that matter to the story.
    Zāl Dastān, Ophiucha and Sheilawisz like this.
  6. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

    I'm not sure I understand what point you're trying to make.

    If the story you mention is set in a different time and place, then viewing them as a "teenager and a 30 year old" would probably lead you to mess it up. That kind of arrangement was pretty normal for most of human history, and our attitude of what a teenager even is, or how a 30 year old should view marriage, would be very anachronistic in another time and setting. That sounds a lot like what I was talking about, imposing your own culture onto everyone else, not even realizing that it's your culture, unique to your environment.

    Just for starters, a teenager today spends much of their time in school, surrounded by peers, viewing adults as people who interfere in their lives by telling them what to do. But take away the school environment, and you change everything. A person could very well grow up among adults, doing much the same work as an adults, viewing those adults closer to peers, and never having that teenage experience at all. It wouldn't be accurate to impose our view of a teenager onto that person. If you wanted to do the character justice, wouldn't you want to do a little research?

    People are different. Why should that be a weird or offensive thing to say? It's not about seeing the world through a TVTropes lens. Sure, maybe there's some of that. When I was in Denmark, a Danish professor told us all about the way that long depressing winters make it rude for the Danes to talk about their successes and exacerbate people's seasonal moods. So lottery commercials involve people quietly heading off alone to the woods, or other weird places, before they can cheer and celebrate winning. Maybe that's a TVTropes-type thing? The Danish people behave such-and-such-a-way, let's label it and give it a page. I don't really know why there should be anything wrong with that.

    But it's also about listening to people talk, lots and lots of people with different backgrounds. Ever have a long chat with a homeless person? Or a priest? Or a veteran? Or a business owner? It's amazing how each one of them will see the world so very differently. And that's within our modern, western culture. To look outside it, and try to share that same depth of human experience? How can that not on some level be intimidating? How can getting it right not take the extra work?
    kherezae and Shreddies like this.
  7. Feo Takahari

    Feo Takahari Auror

    To try to give an example of what I'm talking about, people sometimes write about the Salem witch trials like they're something that's totally alien to "modern" experience. If I were to write about something like that, I'd certainly look up what I could on the historical context, but I'd put in a lot of the fear and hatred from the Satanic Panic in the '80s. Or if I wanted to write about a culture that abandons deformed babies, I couldn't write that like it was something bizarre or alien, because I've read Active and Passive Euthanasia. Or to try to respond to your example, I'd put some of what I know about teenage laborers into a teenage laborer, regardless of whether that laborer lives today or five hundred years past, because they're still people even if the context is different.

    If there's one thing I want to avoid, it's false exoticism. I don't want to take ways of doing and being that you can find today and make them "special" because you could find them in a bit of a different context somewhere else.

    Edit: I didn't originally think of it when I gave the example of witch trials, but The Crucible comes to mind. It's about the witch trials in Salem, but the feelings that went into it all came from McCarthyism, and it keeps finding relevance in similar atmospheres of paranoia, because that paranoia is the same even when the society around it is changed.
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2014
    Ophiucha likes this.
  8. robmatheny80

    robmatheny80 Acolyte

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing!
  9. K.S. Crooks

    K.S. Crooks Inkling

    Writing characters of different colour or ethnicity is not done often enough. most characters are white or simple assumed to be when no description is given. The first obstacle is writing about skin colour. Many people think it is offensive to say a person has white skin, peach skin, light brown skin or medium brown with a hint of red. describing skin colour should be no different than describing birds of different colours.

    The second obstacle is realizing the difference between skin colour and culture. A black person from New York will behave more like an white person from New York than a black person from Kenya. Writing about people from different cultures can be easy if you do research of that culture by reading or talking to friends of that culture (hopefully a person has friends from different cultures). If two people come from different cultural groups but live in the same place then they will have many things the same. You do not need to make the differences the focus, they only need to be there.

    Colour matters because it is real not because it means two people cannot be alike. You would never have all your characters be 25 year old males and have no women or anyone who was not 25. It would be like making a rainbow that is only RED...it makes no sense.
  10. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    You don't always need a description of skin color to convey racial differences. Another method can be found with name selection.

    For example, I have a character in a collaborative effort named Jia Kwan. She resides in a multicultural city, in a Far East themed steampunk world. Her name is enough to communicate her racial identity when coupled with the context of her setting and family.

    Within the same story, a character integral to Jia's plot is described as having a dusky complexion, setting him apart from her immediate world, while remaining relatively common in the city at large.

    As the cultures are loosely associated with real world cultures, but still the product of fantasy, I see little reason to be more detailed than that. Rather, I prefer to let the reader's mind connect the dots in a way that's meaningful to them.
  11. ScipioSmith

    ScipioSmith Sage

    That reminds me of a story in Herodotus, in which the Persian king (Darius, I think) called in some of his Ionian Greek subjects, who cremated their dead, and some of his indian subjects, who ate theirs. The conversation went a little like this.

    King of Kings to the Greeks: I'll pay you a lot of money if you'll eat your dead.

    Greeks: Eww, gross.

    King of Kings to the Indians: I'll pay you a lot of money if you'll cremate your dead.

    Indians: Eww, gross.

    The moral, according to Herodotus is that 'Custom is the King of All' and that's probably a good motto to bear in mind when creating fantasy cultures and writing about them.
  12. FarmerBrown

    FarmerBrown Troubadour

    One of the best resources for me has been "What people wore when: a complete illustrated history of costume from ancient times to the nineteenth century for every level of society" edited by Melissa Leventon (2008). Yes, it focuses on clothing, but you can learn a LOT from looking at costumes for different cultures during different times. Climate, what raw materials were available, what the culture valued (modesty vs. excess, for example), what was 'acceptable' when, and (most importantly) how and when cultures influenced each other. Just my two cents, and thanks OP for the link!
  13. BronzeOracle

    BronzeOracle Sage

    Thanks for the link and the subsequent comments guys. Its an interesting debate between the very real diversity in culture and behaviour that we can bring in rendering characters and so enriching the world and story, and yet the common ground we share as humans - our need for status and love, our struggle to show kindness and overcome our egos, our desire to control others versus the joy we feel in connecting etc. Its left me pondering how I can better reflect cultural diversity in my novel, so thanks to all.
    cupiscent likes this.
  14. Zāl Dastān

    Zāl Dastān Dreamer

    I would totally read a blog on Temporal Diversity. Just saying.
    Also, I checked out the blog in your signature. Very good stuff!
  15. insomniac_tales

    insomniac_tales Acolyte

    I found this site the other day and bookmarked it immediately. It's offered a wealth of knowledge while trying to write POC characters with sensitivity and authenticity. It doesn't feel like pandering to sketch in the little details that round out a character and signify them as intended. I want my world to be as diverse as the world around me.

    Has anyone else found other useful resources in the same vein?
    Last edited: Feb 23, 2016
  16. Jim Aikin

    Jim Aikin Scribe

    Devor gets it exactly right.

    As it happens, I'm working on a YA fantasy in which most of the lead characters are teenagers. Since it's not set on Earth, I'm free to make them as grown-up or as teen-centric as I like. And I'm not too concerned with ethnic differences (although the elves clearly have their own culture and even their own body language). If you're writing for a modern audience of mostly white American teens, I suspect you can get away with certain cultural assumptions. Your readers won't mind. But being aware of the real complexity of human cultures, and how people in different cultures behave and think, will certainly make you a better writer!

    One example that comes to mind with respect to telling stories set in Medieval times is the concept of honor. Honor is not something we moderns typically think a lot about, but it was central in some earlier cultures.
  17. AndrewLowe

    AndrewLowe Troubadour

    This is an interesting resource! Thanks :)
  18. kherezae

    kherezae Dreamer

    I've found a lot of awesome resources on Tumblr! I follow Clever Girl Helps, which posts a variety of helpful things. Writing with Color is great, I've definitely used it at least once to inform my writing.

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